Sometimes, Debbie McQueen wonders if people could possibly understand what she's gone through. The isolation. The struggles. The heartache of being the mother of chemically sensitive boys.
There was the time a family vacation soured when Jason McQueen had a seizure at Sea World. Another incident involved Michael, Jason's brother, breaking out in blistery hives after being exposed to bug repellent during a father-son camping trip.
Debbie, a 37-year-old northeast Phoenix housewife, says her two children are so sensitive to chemicals that she asks visitors to take off their shoes before entering her home. Her house is immaculate and dust-free, and she fears that tracking in chemicals from the outside world might further damage the already shattered health of her chemically sensitive sons.
The boys' health is central to a battle between Debbie McQueen and the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Debbie contends that her sons were wrongfully terminated from disability status at Eagle Ridge Elementary School. Now she won't let Jason, 12, and Michael, 9, attend district schools this fall.
The boys suffer from what she calls "Chemical Sensitivity Disability," or "CSD," which, she says, prevents them from safely attending school like normal kids--unless school administrators follow certain guidelines. Those guidelines would prevent the boys from being exposed to chemicals that trigger their flulike symptoms as well as seizures, hives and learning disabilities, Debbie says.
The condition Debbie says afflicts her sons is more commonly called "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity," and a debate rages in the medical community over whether it even exists. Some doctors say about 15 percent of the population suffers from some degree of chemical sensitivity. Others contend the malady is so rare as to be nearly nonexistent.
But beyond the medical controversy, there are reasons to wonder whether Debbie McQueen's children have chemical sensitivities--at least sensitivities so severe as to keep them out of district schools.
Michael Gray is a Benson, Arizona, doctor who believes chemical sensitivity is real. In 1994, Gray and Debbie met at an environmental conference. After Debbie sent Gray the boys' health records, the doctor concluded that Jason and Michael are extremely sensitive to certain pesticides and solvents. Later, he examined and interviewed the children and came up with the same conclusions.
The McQueen boys, however, have never undergone the sophisticated diagnostic tests that would determine more conclusively whether they actually have sensitivities to certain chemicals. Gray says he recommended the tests, which would cost about $5,000 per child.
Debbie says she can't afford to pay for the tests.
Despite the lack of critical tests, Gray remains confident of his diagnosis. Although the boys were healthy at the time he examined them at the hospital in Benson in March 1995, Jason later developed an eye irritation. The irritation could have arisen because the hospital had been recently sprayed with pesticides, Gray says.
It's "highly unlikely" that the boys' health problems simply are run-of-the-mill childhood illnesses, the doctor says.
The boys' family doctor, Robert Fauer, seems to agree with Gray. "Although I am no expert in chemical hypersensitivity syndromes, it appears that many of the symptoms these children have presented with have been environmentally induced . . ." he wrote in a "To Whom It May Concern" note that Debbie requested.
For eight years, Debbie has told doctors, lawyers, government officials, school personnel, journalists and environmental activists the story of how she and the boys developed their chemical sensitivity.
She claims the illnesses began after the McQueens moved to a west Valley house bordering farmland that was regularly crop-dusted. In the summer of 1987, a helicopter "bulk-released" an unknown pesticide right behind Debbie's house, exposing Debbie and her sons to a "noxious cloud" of pesticide that Debbie now says smelled like chlorine. (At the time, she said it smelled like horse urine.)
A 1987 state investigation was unable to prove any such "bulk releasing."
In fact, state investigators could not determine whether the helicopter was even in the area on the day Debbie says she and her children were poisoned.
As a result of the pesticide exposure, Debbie claims, the family developed chronic illnesses.
The McQueens moved out of the neighborhood, but things haven't been the same since.
Both Debbie and her husband, Doug, say the spraying not only took a toll on the children's health, but on their relationship. They've been married 16 years, live in the same house, love being with the kids. But both acknowledge being emotionally distant from each other. "For the last eight years, we've led totally separate lives," says Debbie. Sometimes, she calls Doug her "so-called husband."
"War is hell," says Doug of Debbie's battles with officials over the boys' health problems. And this is war.
He's rarely around when reporters interview Debbie, and doesn't like to be photographed with the family for newspaper articles. Might hurt business, he says.
Debbie is a wonderful woman, Doug says, and he's very sorry he can't devote more time to helping with her activism. But to tell the truth, he can't always keep up with it, or understand clearly what it is she's doing. Just like she doesn't always understand what he does at work.
Two worlds. Doug provides. Debbie fights for her children.
"What else is there?" she asks. I don't have anything else.
What is remarkable about Jason and Michael McQueen is that they appear to be so healthy. They are both sturdy, blond kids who like to camp and fish. On one visit to the McQueen home, the boys eat tamales and drink Coca-Cola. On another, they watch Conan the Barbarian on TV. They look healthy, but their disability is invisible, Debbie says. That's the problem.
Although Debbie says she also suffers from pesticide poisoning, she appears as healthy as her sons. Her blue eyes are clear. Her tan skin glows and she dresses in sensible sports clothes that show off her muscular, fit legs. She wears her thick, slightly frosted hair in a practical, short style.
Doug is a quiet, soft-spoken guy who likes being outdoors. He grew up in Flagstaff, in a happy home where guests were always welcome and you never knew who was going to stay for dinner.
But the home he lives in now is different.
"I don't really have a social life," says Debbie. She hasn't for quite some time, she adds. She often refers to feeling "isolated."
Ever since the unverified 1987 helicopter spraying incident, Debbie McQueen has been something of a public figure in Arizona. The news media, including New Times, have featured her brand of environmental activism with regularity over the past eight years.
That activism includes Residents for Alternative Pest Policy, a nonprofit group she founded to fight pesticide use. Debbie has testified before the Arizona Legislature, first about the helicopter-spraying incident, and then in support of a recently passed law that requires schools to notify parents about pesticide applications on school grounds.
And last year, the public television show Horizon featured Debbie as the driving force behind what has become a successful nonchemical pest-control program at the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Debbie had promoted a "Hug a Bug" program that helped kids learn about the benefits of insects.
Debbie uses scientific and medical terms in a facile way, and describes her sons' illnesses in clinical detail. Making these illnesses very public does not damage the boys or embarrass them, she says, because they don't read the newspapers.
And seeing her children in the press, she says, helps the public understand the human toll of chemical sensitivity.
Debbie's dealings with the press have been cordial, but her relationships with government officials and professionals, whose help she has repeatedly sought, have often become strident and adversarial. In 1993, former Arizona Department of Environmental Quality chief Ed Fox publicly called McQueen a "burdensome" woman.
"I wouldn't be such a pain if they would do their jobs," Debbie retorts.
So far, in her fights for her family's rights, Debbie has sought the aid of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, two federal agencies--the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and the Environmental Protection Agency--the Arizona Attorney General's Office, the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Arizona Structural Pest Control Board and the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners. She's also enlisted assistance from the Arizona Center for Disability Law, the American Civil Liberties Union and several medical doctors and lawyers in private practice.
If the professionals don't do what Debbie considers an adequate job, she files complaints and grievances and appeals. She does this to protect her rights. And, she says, to let officials know she "still cares" about the issue at hand.
Last spring, Debbie's war with school officials was briefly covered by the daily newspapers when she pulled her boys out of Eagle Ridge Elementary School, which is in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.
The fracas started in the summer of 1994 when Debbie, concerned about the boys' possible exposure to toxins during upcoming renovations of old buildings and construction of a new building on the campus, asked the school to put the boys on disability plans to protect them against chemicals.
Gray told school staffers that some chemically sensitive kids develop temporary learning disabilities after being exposed to certain chemicals.
The Eagle Ridge staff, however, did not think the boys had learning disabilities or behavior problems, and they didn't think the boys were terribly sick, Principal Karen Gasket testified in a hearing last month on the dispute.
But for reasons Gasket has yet to adequately explain, in August 1994 she acquiesced to Debbie's demand that the boys be deemed disabled under the terms of Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Gasket later testified that she misunderstood the 1973 law. She thought the law was meant to prevent disabilities, not accommodate them.
"I made a mistake," Gasket later said. " . . . I know that Mrs. McQueen had frequently told me that the boys were chemically sensitive, and I took her word for it, that that meant there was a medical diagnosis. I never questioned it. But when we looked for the medical records, and we saw no symptoms, there was some confusion about whether [a child] perceived by the parents as chemically sensitive applied to [Section] 504. So again, because we wanted to err on the side of caution rather than make a mistake that could jeopardize the boys . . . I did not want to take a chance."
Gasket refused comment to New Times, citing confidentiality laws.
The McQueens' case is the first, and only, in Arizona schools that cites chemical sensitivity as a disability, says Linda Howard-Kurent, an official with the section of the Office of Civil Rights that monitors the Department of Education.
Federal education officials could not find similar cases in other states.
The 1973 law says children with disabilities must have special school "accommodation plans" that enable them to learn unimpaired by their disability.
The boys' accommodation plans, which Debbie and Gray helped design, protected Jason and Michael by isolating them from such things as carpet glue, new construction, termite pesticide, room deodorizers, perfumes and even scented felt-tip markers. The school also agreed to supply sophisticated air purifiers for Michael's classroom. Teachers were instructed to make sure the boys followed special routes mapped out by the McQueens--routes that would ensure minimal exposure to toxins.
The school nurse, located in a newly carpeted, freshly painted building, was ordered not to allow Jason and Michael in the infirmary, but instead to go to the boys' classrooms should they get sick.
Pesticides were almost not an issue.
The school had stopped spraying pesticides, at Debbie's insistence, in 1991. The only pesticide applications at Eagle Ridge involved several termiticide applications in the early spring of this year, to the foundation of a new building. School officials notified parents before they applied the termiticide, called Torpedo.
The pesticide was applied after school hours, immediately covered with plastic and then buried in concrete a few hours later, says Hal Buckley, who is in charge of the school grounds.
Despite the school's caution, Debbie claimed the termiticide made the boys ill. School officials say maybe the kids just had a touch of flu; it was going around at the time.
As the school year progressed, Debbie seemed to grow more dissatisfied with the way the school was complying with the accommodation plans. For months, she had kept in touch with the Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the district had discriminated against her children because they had a disability.
In March 1995, shortly after the termiticide applications and at the very time Debbie's relationship with the teachers and Gasket had become brittle and hostile (she communicated with Gasket via certified mail by that time), a group of teachers and administrators led by Gasket discontinued the accommodation plans.
The team concluded that the McQueen boys' chemical sensitivities--if they existed--did not impair their ability to learn. Actually, the teachers said, the boys showed no more signs of illness than the healthy kids.
In short, the kids weren't really disabled after all, the team decided.
According to the 1973 law, school districts do not have to pay for medical tests to prove children have disabilities.
Thus the teachers would no longer be required to follow the burdensome accommodation plans. If the boys subsequently showed signs of chemical-related illness, Gasket later testified, the plans would have been reinstated.
"It was political," Debbie says of the team's decision to terminate the plans. Of course the boys weren't showing signs of illness, she insists--they were being protected from chemicals by their accommodation plans.
Last spring, Debbie taught the boys at home. At the end of the year, the school, without testing the boys or checking on the progress of their work, advanced Jason to seventh grade and Michael to fourth grade.
When Debbie wasn't home-schooling the kids, she says she spent 60 hours a week trying to get their accommodation plans reinstated.
Debbie began communicating with the federal Office of Civil Rights about her "lack of due process." As a result, the civil rights agency began monitoring the district, which signed a "compliance order." The order ensured that Debbie would get a hearing on the accommodation plans, and that the school district would write policies and procedures surrounding the 22-year-old disability law.
But Debbie didn't get her hearing for months.
The district was busy writing policies and procedures, in accordance with the compliance order it had signed. Plus, the district said, it had difficulty finding an impartial hearing officer who was familiar with the 1973 law.
"The more she fought the system, and the more she had to use the feds, the more reticent the district was in dealing with her," says Greg Miller, a parent advocate who attended some meetings with Debbie.
Finally, a hearing was held in early August. Debbie did not succeed in reinstating the kids' disability status.
"It was a whitewash," says Debbie, pointing out that Larry Kelly, the "so-called impartial hearing officer" was a retired school administrator from a different district.
In his decision, Kelly noted: "There is no medical evidence that either Jason McQueen or Michael McQueen have been tested for any reaction to any specific chemical such as pesticides, termiticides, or outgasses emanating from such toxic materials as paint, carpeting, markers or other supplies, materials, furniture or equipment commonly found in school classrooms, school buildings, or school grounds."
Debbie has appealed the decision, and says she may well take the battle to federal court after the school administrative process is exhausted.
Although the McQueens had known since March 1995 that they might lose their battle with the school district, they failed to make firm alternative plans for their sons' educations. This week, Debbie enrolled the boys at a charter school that she claims does not use chemicals.
Although there are several schools in the Paradise Valley school district that control pests through nonchemical means, Debbie will not let her kids return to the district. She calls the nonchemical programs in district schools "pseudo programs."
What really concerns her is how teachers and administrators at Eagle Ridge "mentally and physically abused" her sons.
She gives examples of that abuse. The kids got sick after the school used the termiticide. Jason's teacher allowed a room deodorizer in the classroom in clear violation of his accommodation plan. Such scents, Debbie says, might be dangerous to Jason's health. The band teacher failed to give Jason an "effort" grade and isolated him from the rest of the kids, just because the accommodation plan kept him out of some sections of the band room. Michael's teacher prevented him from participating in a tee-shirt tie-dye project.
District officials will not comment on the McQueen case. But available public records, including some of the boys' medical records, point up troubling inconsistencies.
These inconsistencies surface at the very time mental-health professionals struggle to differentiate between two types of mothers who complain repeatedly about the treatment of their children.
The first type of mother is merely anxious, concerned that a child with special needs is being shortchanged by the educational system, says Herbert Schreier, an Oakland, California, child psychiatrist who studied such mothers. The anxious mother generally quiets down when her child's needs are met, he says.
The second type of mother uses her child as a tool to manipulate professionals and get attention for herself--at the expense of the child, says Schreier. The mother never seems satisfied, no matter what officials do to appease her. Mothers in this category may be suffering from a variation of a psychological syndrome known as Munchausen by Proxy, Schreier says. Like all forms of Munchausen by Proxy, this variation of the syndrome is actually a type of child abuse, Schreier says.
He would not comment on the McQueen case. And without performing an extensive psychiatric examination, it is all but impossible to prove, definitively, into which category Debbie McQueen might fit.
When Debbie McQueen talks about her childhood in Illinois, she paints a picture of isolation and loneliness. She was a skinny tomboy who spent a lot of time alone. She often felt "judged" by other kids because she lived in a "slum area of Springfield."
By contrast, she says, her mother was a "sharecrop farmer's daughter" who lost many relatives in Auschwitz.
Her parents taught her to tell the truth, but, she asks, where has it gotten her? She tells the truth, only to be "chastised" and "scrutinized" and "covertly investigated."
Debbie refers to an eight-year-old investigation by the Arizona Attorney General's Office, in which she says she was singled out as a possible suspect. The investigation touched on reports that shots had been fired at a crop-dusting helicopter owned by the company that allegedly poisoned her and her boys in 1987.
Debbie says a lawyer charged her $5,000 to successfully have her name expunged from records as a suspect.
Debbie hadn't expected this when she came to Arizona 17 years ago with her dog. All she wanted to do then was escape a failed relationship and find a new life.
She met Doug McQueen in Flagstaff. She recalls him as an "earthy-type person," and he remembers her as "a lot of fun." The two married in 1979.
Back then, Debbie had dreams of going back to college. She didn't return. Now, she considers that decision one of the biggest mistakes she's made in her life.
Debbie worked as a court clerk and Doug sold electrical supplies in Flagstaff. Their stories differ on their decision to move to Phoenix. In an interview away from Debbie, Doug says he asked her to "send out my rsums" to prospective Valley employers hand-picked by Doug.
Debbie takes credit for Doug's employment. She says she secretly sent out Doug's rsums to Phoenix businesses, and "he didn't even know it."
In the winter of 1985, the McQueens moved to a home on west Tuckey Lane in Glendale. The tile and stucco house was adjacent to farmland. Helicopters periodically crop-dusted the nearby fields, says Debbie, but she didn't pay much attention. Her son Michael was born several weeks after the move, and she was "on the skirt tails of the American dream."
Then Debbie and her neighbors started noticing that there was a lot of illness in the area. It seemed as though "some plague" had descended on them. Children cried all the time, "and we couldn't console them."
A health history that Debbie wrote in 1987 for a reporter lists the family's maladies. Both boys had ear infections and diarrhea. They were irritable. Jason had "stuttering, personality change, hyperactive, body tics. Lasted two weeks." In one instance, she noted, Jason had "behavior change. Body tic. Lower torso bucking nonstop. Disappeared after a while."
"By December, Michael had lost two pounds," Debbie wrote. "Dr. McBride put him in Good Sam. His diarrhea improved with no treatment. He ate like a dog. Michael had chest congestion (never in life had a runny nose) apparent red ring around lips. Very lethargic. Michael had no diagnosis. Came home from hospital and began vomiting too. Vomiting, diarrhea continued. At this point a test sent to Tucson showed a virus. No fever. No one caught Michael's virus. No fevers either."
One specialist, Debbie says, ordered a psychological evaluation before he would give the baby, Michael, a barium enema to determine why he apparently suffered from relentless diarrhea. The psychologist determined that Debbie had a normal mother-son relationship with Michael. Michael's barium enema turned up no abnormalities.
"I never got to play with my babies," she says. "They were always sick."
Then Debbie wrote about the horrible incident of August 27, 1987: "Saw white helicopter off fence at 8:15-8:30 a.m. Had cooler on. Jason and I outside smelled strong odor (horse sweat, ammonia) Smell in house."
That day, she wrote, after the spraying, she experienced "mini-series cartoon dreams in intricate detail and vibrant red, orange and yellow colors. Sore throat, pressure in chest for five days. No fever. Felt like water trickling in brain."
Doug, she wrote, had "same as above, exclude dream, commencing 8/28/87." She now recalls that Doug also had "heart palpitations, constant nosebleeds and explosive diarrhea."
Doug, who did not witness the August 27 spraying because he was at work, remembers only "having a few episodes of breathing problems." He did jumping jacks in the living room to free up his lungs, let the air in.
Both boys started having seizures after the spraying, Debbie says. But Jason's were more severe. He smelled funny after the seizures, like "rotten nuts."
In September, Jason's doctor wrote: "Mother VERY upset! . . . Had another seizure last pm?!"
"One week after the poisoning," Debbie wrote in one of her notes about Jason's health problems, "both boys urinated brown and experienced excruciating pain while doing so. Tests ruled out infection, yeast or fungus as a cause. This discomfort, along with ulcerations of all mucousy areas, lasted 8 weeks thereafter.
"God bless their souls for enduring such agony."
Debbie says the boys had "extreme behavior problems" after the spraying. She recalls one doctor saying, "Mrs. McQueen, I don't know why you're not an alcoholic. I would be with those kids. Your baby belongs in a padded cell."
Debbie says she did not fabricate any of her children's symptoms. She did not manipulate doctors to get attention. And she has never manipulated other professionals to make a life for herself.
These were not normal childhood illnesses, she says, they were pesticide poisoning.
Her life is a living hell, she says. She is constantly on the "legitimation treadmill" trying to convince the world that her boys suffer from CSD. This makes her feel like a "social outcast."
"People shouldn't judge me until they walk in my shoes," she says.
But she has to go on fighting for her sons. Sometimes, she says, when she kisses her kids good night she wonders how long they will live.
Debbie says she also became chronically ill from the spraying, but she "weaned" herself from doctors a long time ago. The boys matter, she doesn't.
But those postspraying symptoms she says she experienced were notable. In her family health history she wrote: "Went in fields after application to take samples. Itchy, eyes uncoordinated, shaky, nauseated. Lost feeling in hands, feet. Pops on left side brain. Felt as if life sucked out of me."
The Arizona Attorney General's Office and the Commission on Agriculture and Horticulture (now the Department of Agriculture) were never able to prove that any spraying took place in the vicinity of the McQueen home on August 27, 1987.
In late 1987, the Attorney General Office's decided to investigate Debbie's complaint that she was poisoned by pesticides dumped by a crop-dusting helicopter. The company Debbie claimed owned the helicopter was Marsh Aviation.
Marsh Aviation denied any wrongdoing, saying the helicopter wasn't in the neighborhood on August 27. The company provided detailed records of where it had sprayed that day. Further, Marsh said a dumping of the type Debbie described was never done.
After talking to Debbie, the investigator noted that "she has not been told by any of the medical people that they can positively associate the problems experienced with pesticide poisoning."
The investigator also reported that Debbie said a test to determine the toxicity in Jason's blood had been botched by Alabama lab technicians because "the frozen blood sample had accidentally been thawed."
Debbie also told the investigator that her dog had suffered seizures and hair loss.
Several neighbors were interviewed. Three women said they'd seen a helicopter on August 27. Two of the three women said the helicopter was spraying. One of the neighbors, Elizabeth Gonzales, said her kids had headaches, vomiting and diarrhea. Her doctor diagnosed a virus. (She could not be reached for comment.) Two other neighbors complained of undiagnosed health effects, but those occurred on other dates--not August 27.
The Attorney General's Office declined to prosecute Marsh Aviation, citing lack of solid evidence.
Debbie also asked the Arizona Department of Health Services to look into her complaints. Don Selvey, a state epidemiologist, told the attorney general's investigator that Debbie called him often and answered "one way and then the next day she would call back and give a different answer or version than what she previously stated."
Public records do reveal that a day later, on August 28, 1987, a crop duster sprayed the pesticide Pydrin in the area near Debbie's neighborhood.
Symptoms of acute Pydrin poisoning include dizziness, itchy skin, blurred vision, tightness in chest and convulsions, according to Etoxnet, a pesticide information service made up of several universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Etoxnet says that Pydrin poisoning symptoms "appear to be reversible."
After months of what they say were hellish health problems, the McQueens sold their home on Tuckey Lane for a $20,000 loss and in 1988 moved into a brand-new house in north Phoenix.
That house had a new carpet when the family moved in. Debbie didn't complain that the boys were made ill by the chemicals seeping up from the new carpet in the new house. Yet she complained vigorously about the health threat of a new carpet at Eagle Ridge school.
When asked about the inconsistency, Debbie says the boys probably did get sick from the new carpet at the new house. But the symptoms, she says, may have been masked by the already terrible illnesses the boys still suffered from their west-side home.
An even stranger inconsistency centers on a complaint the McQueens filed with the state shortly after the family moved into the new house.
"We are quite concerned that our new home was not properly pretreated for termites and, possibly, the north side of our home adjacent to the patio lacks any treatment," Debbie wrote in the complaint to the Structural Pest Control Board. Later, the McQueens filed a lawsuit against the termiticide applicator, Don's Termites, and the builder, Elan Realty and Development, claiming improper treatment for termites. Debbie said in an affidavit that her home was "highly susceptible to termite infestation."
In a deposition, she also said that she saw "hundreds and thousands of these little bugs, and they drop their wings, fall in the cracks, and squiggle around all night."
No one else could turn up any evidence of termites at the McQueen home.
In fact, soil samples taken at the McQueen home revealed that the home had been adequately treated for termites--with a dangerous chemical, Chlordane. Chlordane is highly toxic and is now banned as a home pesticide.
Yet Debbie testified the termiticide did not make her kids sick.
Even though Chlordane was detected beneath and around the McQueens' new house, Debbie and Doug had a second round of pesticide applied. The termiticide used this time was called Torpedo, according to the records of the exterminator who did the application.
Torpedo, the chemical reportedly used on the McQueen home, is the very chemical that Debbie claims made her boys ill at Eagle Ridge school.
Why did the boys not react to the traces of Chlordane and Torpedo at their home?
Dr. Michael Gray, who testified that even the slightest trace of certain pesticides can make the boys sick, has no medical answer for the inconsistency.
Debbie explains there was just a little bit of Torpedo applied beneath her home, in contrast to the hundreds of gallons applied at the school.
Eventually, a state hearing officer dismissed Debbie's complaint against Don's Termites. A judge also dismissed the company from the lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The McQueens dropped the lawsuit against Elans without getting a penny from the builder.
Elan's lawyer, Mike Rubin, says the suit was "frivolous," and he warned the McQueens that if the case went to trial, he'd ask the judge to make the McQueens pay his fees.
In the middle of the battle over termite pesticide applied to the McQueen home, Jason began school at Eagle Ridge.
At the time, the school was using pesticides and that use, says Debbie, caused Jason to go into seizures when he came home. That's why she urged the school to switch to "Integrated Pest Management"--a nonchemical way to control bugs by using sticky traps and "good" bugs that eat "bad" bugs.
The program, adopted in 1991, has taken hold, and several schools in the district now use no pesticides.
Debbie says Jason's seizures diminished after the school stopped using pesticides, thanks to her.
Jason has never had a seizure at school. He has never had a seizure in the presence of a doctor. He does not remember his seizure at Sea World. In fact, he does not remember his seizures at all. His mom, though, tells him when he has one. He conks out. He wakes up. And he can tell because his cheek might be bleeding inside where he bit it during the seizure, or he might be trembling.
He is not faking any health effects to get attention, he says, or to please his mom. It's real.
"I am totally sick of doctors," Jason says, adding that he thinks doctors are sick of him, too.
Last year's home schooling was difficult for Jason. He missed his friends. His mom didn't give him any recesses. He tried to keep his mind off things by playing Nintendo and watching TV.
But his health, by necessity, must come first, his parents told him.
Doug McQueen says there is no doubt in his mind that his boys are suffering from real chemical sensitivity.
Neither the kids nor Debbie is fabricating the illnesses to get attention, he says. Anyone who would make such a suggestion has no idea what the McQueens have been through since the spraying, what their lives have been like. The seizures. The illnesses. The struggles.
"It's real," Doug McQueen says. "It's real."
Debbie McQueen seems proud of her home, which she's energetically decorated in a Southwestern theme. The coffee table is made of wood the family picked up on a hike. On the shelves are shells from the beach at Rocky Point, Mexico, where the McQueens have vacationed. Debbie says she likes being in Mexico because people don't judge her there. They just accept her.
Some of the furnishings in the house were obtained through barter or sales of Debbie's artwork. "Activists are often creative," she says.
Among the pieces that have yet to be sold is a nocturnal scene of a scorpion playing with a small beetle. A bright, almost childlike moon washes the scorpion in light. A butterfly dances in the sky.
Do you like it, she asks a visitor.
"I call it 'Play With Prey.'
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